USCIS culture change lays groundwork for top innovation prize

Little by little, some agencies are beginning to realize that it will take full-scale transformation to deliver better customer and digital services to the public. But the first step forward means embracing a major culture change, said Aaron Snow, director of 18F.

“This isn’t a cosmetic exercise or an exercise in incremental improvement,” he said, during an April 25 keynote speech at ACT-IAC’s Igniting Innovation Awards and Showcase in Washington. “What we really mean is we want to transform people’s lives. And to transform the services that improve people’s lives, we have to transform some entrenched practices.”

A similar mentality helped U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services take home the top prize at the 2016 Igniting Innovation Awards.

“We’ve been fortunate to have that change come from top to bottom, which is not usual in all organizations,” said Rowena Furce, an IT manager within the Office of Information Technology at CIS. “Having the CIO and the executive leadership drive not only the agile methodologies but also with our acquisition processes, they’ve become much more nimble and agile. That has been really instrumental in creating partnerships not only with other government agencies but with the private sector to help us reach our goals.”

A team at CIS developed myUSCIS.gov, a website and app that’s designed to help customers navigate the U.S. immigration process more easily. The portal includes tools to help immigrants prepare for naturalization, as well as resources that explain immigration benefits and citizenship preparation classes.

CIS was one of five winners out of 40 finalists for the innovation awards.

Craig Schneider, the technical lead for the myUSCIS project, said he used the feedback he got from the site’s users to help the team decide what it will work on next and how it will prioritize the features it builds.

“The feedback we get is related to just the basic usability of the website,” said Craig Schneider, the technical lead for the myUSCIS project. “Do they understand what to do without having to read an instruction document? That’s really what we’re going after. We want them to be able to access the website and to be able to submit applications without any external help.”

The agency has continuously released updates and new features to the site since myUSCIS first launched in 2014, Schneider said. The team expects to release the main application for U.S. citizenship on the site in the next few months.

Furce said the product owner and business users work closely with CIS analysts, designers and programmers, which helps them deliver as a team.

“Our product owner sits with the team quite often,” she said. “Executive leadership on the information technology side is very engaged in what we’re doing, so it is truly a partnership on all levels.”

18F knows this kind of mentality and collaboration well. The organization, already known for its work developing new products, platforms, acquisition methodologies and training programs, is working with agencies to tackle the biggest barrier to transformation: cultural change.

“We’re helping a few agencies step by step,” Snow said. “We’re doing exemplary delivery work and acquisition projects. … We’re running workshops. We’re helping folks migrate to the cloud. Each agency is different, has different needs, a different set of needs and priorities. We take each agency partner as they are and we work hand-in-hand with them to help find whatever the best path forward is for their digital future.”

Snow said he initially thought being a fee-for-service organization would hinder 18F’s ability to deliver solutions quickly, but he now sees it as a benefit.

“It keeps us accountable,” he said. “It keeps us seeking product-market-fit. It’s a nice — if blunt measure — of our own efficiency and performance. But mostly it’s great because it turns out the best government customers are paying government customers, customers who have skin in the game, who understand and sign a document saying they’re committing themselves and their office’s money to our way of working.”

The 18F way of working means embracing the organization’s theory of change, Snow said.

“Cultural change happens because we deliver together, hand in hand, aligned, not coerced by a command and control apparatus of government,” he said. “It happens when we build trust, when we build confidence in the methodologies that work.”

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